A teacup in a storm – Christmas Island in WW2

I was most fortunate to be contacted by Ian Foster, who is a Voluntary Guide at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. In 2018 he gave a presentation to his fellow guides on Christmas Island in WW2 and afterwards turned that presentation into the following article. I am thrilled that he asked me to accept it for inclusion on this website. It is a wonderfully fascinating and riveting read about a very dark and frightening time in Christmas Island’s history. I’m very grateful that he has shared his article.

A Teacup in a Storm – Christmas Island in WW2
by Ian Foster, Voluntary Guide, Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra

A calm refuge – NOT!

From 1941 the residents of this idyllic outpost, so frequently in our daily news and wildlife documentaries, witnessed sinkings, shellings, torpedo attacks, mutiny, executions, occupation, espionage, starvation, internment, evacuation and poignant burials.

And yet this story is absent from the AWM and virtually any other memorial – why? In the 1940s Christmas Island (CI) was part of the British Straits Settlements, a hangover from the British East India Company, and was governed from Singapore. In January 1958, as Britain loosened its colonial ties, CI became a British Crown Colony under direct rule from London and then, as pre-arranged, in Oct 1958 it was transferred to Australia.

Where is Christmas Island?

CI is one of Australia’s more remote territories and lies just south of Java. The distance to Perth is 2300 km, to Singapore 1300 km, to Batavia (Jakarta) 400 km. The prevailing winds are from the south west, though during the wet season occasional storms and swells come in from the north, on those occasions making Flying Fish Cove quite unusable as a port. In the 1940s most residents lived near the Cove and mined the phosphate deposits at either Phosphate Hill or South Point. Roads, and even tracks through the jungle were few, but a railway joined the mining areas. The main customer for phosphate was Japan and every month or so the supply ship TSS Islander served the island’s needs from Singapore. The rugged landscape meant there was no airport until 1974.

Who were the Islanders in 1941?

The prevailing winds caused CI to be originally uninhabited but discovery of phosphate in the 1890s led to its development as a mine. By 1941 the population was about 1400, living largely as three distinct communities- abt 30 Europeans(mainly UK), abt 80 Indians (mainly Sikh police + military) and abt 1200 Chinese & Malay (90% male and largely indentured labourers recruited through Singapore). The sole public servant on the Island was Tom Cromwell, the District Officer, who reported to Singapore.

German raider, Atlantis

1940 – Wake-up call

The quiet life on CI was disturbed when in 1940 the German raider, Atlantis, reported clearly observing the lights of CI when it had passed nearby. Allied agents reported this matter and a nightly blackout was imposed.

As further responses, barracks and fortifications were built and a 6 inch ex-naval gun installed.

6 inch ex-naval gun

To operate the field piece the Hong Kong & Singapore Royal Artillery supplied 27 Indian soldiers. In addition, all (European) males formed a unit of the Malayan/Singapore Volunteers.

1941 – Japan joins the War

On 30 November CI received the radio broadcast in which PM Curtin announced the loss of HMAS Sydney, approximately 2000 Km to the south. Just a week later, the PM announced the outbreak of war with Japan and its attack on Malaya. After another week, it attacked Timor.

Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas Day and in view of the developing situation the District Officer and Company Island Manager held an immediate meeting of all European staff.

The TSS Islander in Flying Fish Cove

Concerned for the safety of their loved ones, the meeting decided that all dependents would be evacuated to Singapore(!). A week later, on 2 January 1942, the little Islander sailed to Singapore with the women and children crowded aboard while the menfolk remained behind to await its return in about a month.

In disturbing news just after it had sailed off, a Malay fisherman reported that a Japanese submarine was moored off one of the island’s beaches and some crewmen were ashore bathing in rock pools.

January 1942; the first sinking – MV Eidsvold

On 12 January the Norwegian Eidsvold arrived direct from Colombo to take on a load of phosphate, quite unaware of the dangers around CI. It had barely started when a storm and swells swept in from the north, forcing it to stand off the island until 20 Jan, when it returned to resume loading – against the signalled advice of the harbourmaster. As he had warned, at 6.30 pm a torpedo struck the Eidsvold, breaking its back and forcing its abandonment while gunfire from The Fort drove the submarine away.

The locals took the crew in until 6 Feb when the cruiser HMS Durban took Eidsvold crew to the safety(?) of Batavia. Luck was with them however, and an Australian ship heading for Sydney suddenly needed a crew after its own had deserted following air attacks so the Eidsvold crewmen signed on and successfully completed the voyage.

6 February – the Carley Float Arrives [HMAS Sydney sank 19 Nov 1941]

On 6 Feb a floating object, surrounded by birds, was observed 3 miles offshore and after it was confirmed that it wasn’t a submarine, but a Carley Float, a volunteer crew went out and brought it ashore.

The float contained the remains of a body and two further shoes that didn’t match this body and from his clothing, footwear and markings on the float, island staff determined that the body was an Australian. After a medical examination the sailor’s remains were buried in the European Cemetery on the jungle-clad hillside above the Cove. The enlisted and voluntary military force provided an honour guard, including bugler, and he was buried “in his boiler suit” with full military honours.

This was a sobering experience for the islanders.

Views of Flying Fish Cove & the Old European Cemetery where the “Unknown Sailor” was buried

Perilous Times

This map, displayed in the 1942 Gallery, shows the dangerous strategic setting of Christmas Island in 1942.

It is interesting to compare the dates on this map with the narrative of life on Christmas Island over these 3 months.

It was, indeed, a Teacup in a Storm.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, what about the Islander and its passengers?

The TSS Islander arrived in Singapore in mid January to chaos and sought a dock to have protective armaments added for its return trip. The dependents disembarked and immediately looked for ships heading to India or Perth – though some wanted to wait to see if their menfolk would turn up.

The Islander’s captain had a breakdown and was taken ashore to eventually spend the war in Changi, while the passengers remaining in Singapore reboarded. They hurriedly departed for CI on 8 Feb but the First Officer, now in command, had not been able to access the relevant recognition flags so unarmed, low on fuel and slow, the Islander was certainly vulnerable and several times was menaced by enemy aircraft as they headed south.

Back to CI

With their normal refuelling port, Palembang, under aerial attack, the Islander stopped at Batavia. While it obtained some fuel, the radio officer, doubtful of their chances, chose to desert. They now had limited radio services and no recognition flags.

On 15 Feb Singapore capitulated and on 17 Feb the Islander warily approached CI and stopped 3 miles offshore. Who was now in control of the Island (and its gun)? For the island forces, with Singapore surrendered, who was in control of the Islander?

The Island’s radio officer, Joseph Baker, offered to motor out and inspect the ship. As he warily approached he saw his wife’s distinctive polka dot dress at the bow of the islander, with Bobby Baker waving furiously – all was well! The reports that Bobby and the others brought back made it clear that the Island could expect no help from allied forces.

Evacuation – or not?

Later that morning European staff members were given a choice – stay or attempt evacuation to Perth? To illustrate the hazards, at 3pm a periscope was seen approaching the pier and Islander. At the ‘Fort’ the gun crew sprang into action and the submarine was shelled, rose temporarily to the surface and disappeared, never to be seen again? On 18 Feb, while loading continued, another ship, MV Hermione entered the cove and Joe Baker offered to ferry out necessary papers for the next stage of its journey south. He rushed home, told Bobby to pack just their essential papers and together they were winched onto the Hermione from the launch and departed immediately for Perth. The TSS Islander departed, incident-free a few hours later.

Heading south on 23 February, the Islander sighted two allied convoys heading north and identified the ships; USS Langley & Phoenix and HMAS Perth. Within 2 weeks, only the cruiser Phoenix was still afloat and after an active war, spent mainly in and around Australia, it was on-sold to the Argentine navy and re-named General Belgrano (sunk off the Falkland Islands in 1982).

On 25 Feb Islander arrived at Fremantle with 49 civilian evacuees. The Acting Captain reported 15 Europeans, 27 Indian soldiers and 28 Indian police still to be evacuated but did not mention the 1565 Asian residents. Perhaps they were not considered to be in danger.

February 1942 – daily hammer blows

On 19 Feb, the CI radio picked up that Darwin had been bombed and that the enemy had landed on Bali. Soon after, CI suffered its first bombing raid, in which 3 Chinese workers were killed. On 23 Feb Japan occupied the Andaman Islands and then from 28 Feb-3 Mar, as a result of the Battles of Java Sea & Sunda Strait, eliminated all effective allied naval resistance. CI was now totally isolated, truly a teacup in a storm, and those remaining there faced the realisation that they faced a gloomy future.

USSs Langley, Whipple, Pecos & Edsall – A tragic and futile intervention

USS Langley

February 1942 found America’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, now relegated to transport duties, and moored in Darwin. It was ordered to Perth to collect 32 P40 fighters, pilots and ground crew, that had been flown across from Sydney and were desperately needed by Dutch forces in Java. Aircraft and personnel aboard it was seen by Islander, just before it left Phoenix and rendezvoused with a freighter Sea Witch and two aging destroyers USSs Whipple and Edsall for protection

The USS Langley is hit by a torpedo on
the 27th January 1942

On 26 Feb, as they approached their destination, Tjilatjap, a bombing attack badly damaged Langley but the destroyers rescued 485 before sinking the crippled Langley. The overcrowded destroyers were ordered to meet the fleet tanker USS Pecos at the CI Cove and transfer the survivors – except for the flight crews and mechanics, who were required to assemble on Edsall and head north again to assemble and fly the aircraft already delivered by Sea Witch.

On 28 February the transfer was underway at CI, with LCdr Tom Donovan (USS Langley) on the pilot boat overseeing the sailors’ movements and Asst Harbourmaster Craig on USS Pecos keeping it in safe waters. Japanese bombers swept in attacking the Cove and all three ships hurriedly departed southwards, out of range, to undertake a night-time transfer in the open ocean. Their hasty departure meant that Donovan had been left behind and Craig was still on Pecos!

USS Pecos

The next day, 1 March, on its optimistic journey north back to Tjilatjap, Edsall was set upon by a Japanese surface fleet and after a gallant fight over most of the day, was sunk. Very few survived the sinking and the handful that Japanese ships reported rescuing were found in a mass grave in Java after the war or disappeared.

Donovan was to endure 3 years as a POW but was, by my research, the sole survivor from Langley. None of the P40s were ever unpacked before being destroyed by the retreating allies.

Scene from the film

The Japanese commander was furious with the poor performance of his gunnery personnel and a film of the frustrating day was later used for instructional purposes in naval schools – how NOT to sink an enemy destroyer!

Later that day, and further south, Pecos came under three heavy air attacks and as it was sinking sent urgent calls for rescue support, causing Whipple to hurriedly return.

USS Whipple post 1942 Sydney Harbour

Later that night it slowly cruised through the various flotsam and picked up 231 survivors (including Assistant Harbourmaster Craig!). Whipple then detected at least two submarine contacts and was forced to hurriedly depart, tragically leaving many others still in the water.

Mutiny, Murder & Surrender

From 18 Feb, when Islander left for Perth, staff led and oversaw the sabotage of mine equipment. The fact that this was in spite of Japanese broadcasts banning such acts made the Asian labourers nervous and many hid in the jungle.

On 6 March there was a second bombing raid and then shelling from shipping and Captain Williams ran up the white flag. However, the Japanese fleet then sailed away and, emboldened, he returned the Union Jack to the masthead. Many of his troops disputed his action and District Officer Cromwell was also against his action.

Unrest simmered and on the evening of 10 March 7 Indian soldiers, led by Havildar (Sergeant) Mir Ali, mutinied and killed Captain Williams and the British NCOs. Their bodies were dumped over the cliff near the fort. [It wasn’t until 1983 that a plaque was placed at the Fort in their memory – and even then it was only done by a group of ex-servicemen then living on the island.]

In the violent and confused aftermath the senior Indian officer, supported by most of his soldiers eventually restored order but having prevented further murders, they insisted that all Europeans and two loyal Indian NCOs were to be imprisoned. Conditions were primitive but many locals quietly kept them supplied with food. Not long afterwards a lifeboat of exhausted and emaciated survivors of the SS Nam Yong, a freighter that had been torpedoed 500 km north, washed up on the shore and joined those already interned.

On 31 March the Japanese fleet returned and accompanied by further shelling, 1000 navy marines came ashore at Flying Fish Cove and formally took possession of Christmas Island. The American submarine USS Seawolf lurked about but after several abortive attacks succeeded in damaging just one cruiser, which had to be withdrawn to Japan for repairs. In another attack the next year it succeeded in sinking a Japanese phosphate ship and it joined the gathering collection of vessels at the bottom of the Cove’s very deep waters.

Occupation

The first weeks of occupation by the naval units were very harsh, with the first 3 days being particularly brutal. District Officer Cromwell and the island doctor were beaten severely when the sabotage was revealed but this stopped when locals convinced Ando that the shellings had caused much of the damage.

Commander Ando addressed the Asians workers, urging them to cooperate and work hard in support of the Japanese Empire, but many stayed hidden away for some time. Humiliation, looting and drunkenness continued and the Commander Ando tried to convince the Indian soldiers to join the Japanese-backed Indian National Army (INA). He was angry that only the original seven mutineers accepted his offer and the treatment of the loyal Indians quickly deteriorated. The mutineers were allocated labouring duties but over time they were removed from the Island.

After a month, a civilian force replaced many of the marines and life became less violent, though little mining or shipping ever took place and most locals had little to do. Over the 3 years of the occupation the Islanders experienced blockade, malnutrition, compliance, opportunism, sufferance & loyalty. By 1943 the lack of shipping caused by the submarine blockade was causing severe shortages of food and large vegetable gardens were established (one eventually became the golf course).

In December 1943 the Japanese transferred the POWs, Indian troops and 300 locals to Java, with the POWs finally being placed in an appalling camp in Surabaya.

With the surrender in August 1945, the last 50-60 Japanese departed though, anxious to leave behind firearms to maintain law and order but aware of the intercommunal tensions, they gave the firing mechanisms to the Chinese and the remainder of each weapon to the Malays.

Finally, in October 1945, the HMS Rother arrived to restore British rule and a month later the TSS Islander.

Most mutineers eventually faced trial for mutiny (not murder) in Singapore with several serving 9 years imprisonment. The ring leaders escaped punishment and political issues around the de-colonisation of India prevented their ongoing pursuit.

That’s what happened on CI in WW2

  • I know, it’s none of our AWM business.
  • But it almost is.
  • and it’s pretty interesting all the same.

Selected References

  • AWM, Official History Australia in the 1939-1945 War – Navy
  • Hunt, John (2011), Suffering through strength, John Hunt, Canberra
  • Messimer, Dwight (1983) Pawns of War, Annapolis (USA
  • Neale, Margo (1988) We were the Christmas islanders, Neale, Canberra
  • Neale, Margo (1993) Christmas island: The Early Years, Neale, Canberra

Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island